Bringing The Classics To Life

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From a different performance by the Berkshire Bach Ensemble

On Saturday, July 13th, I spent most of the day silently lamenting the fact that I had missed out on going to the Albany Pride Parade. The Berkshire Bach Ensemble was making its debut in the Catskills. The famous harpsichordist Kenneth Cooper would direct the Ensemble, which he founded, and world class musicians would take the tiny stage. There was a box office to run, a ticket line to answer to, and chores to do before the performance. As I tapped away at my keyboard, typing up an important interview, the sounds of strings drifted up the stairs and under my office door. Sure, the Ensemble sounded beautiful, but was this really worth missing the rainbows of Albany Pride? All of my doubts dissipated after I closed the box office and took my seat. Boy was I in for a show.

IMG_0490    I have always been fascinated with music. I’ve been in band, chorus, drum and bugle corps, advanced band, jazz choir, and more – live music somehow finds its way straight to my soul – but my high school didn’t have an orchestra, so I was never very familiar with the string instruments. Really all I knew about classical string arrangements was what I learned in elementary school, and almost nobody comes out of that liking what they learned. I didn’t mind the music, but didn’t find it to be anything special. At this point, I encourage you to forget everything you’ve been forced to listen to in school. Clear away all the bitter memory of required curriculum and make room for the wonder that is the Berkshire Bach Ensemble.

The evening began with Samson: Overture, by George Frederic Handel. I cannot speak to how this one went, since I was busy closing up the box office, but I managed to seat myself in time to hear all of Montevertigo, a suite of four madrigals, composed by Claudio Monteverdi and arranged by Kenneth Cooper. As Cooper explained, Monteverdi wrote wonderful compositions for vocal music, but never wrote anything instrumental. The Berkshire Bach Ensemble was not satisfied with this, and so they performed a refurbished version of four of his madrigals: Zefiro torna, Maledetto sia l’aspetto, Lamento della ninfa, and O rosetta, che rosetta. Cooper humorously explained the meaning of each piece before starting into the suite, setting a lighthearted and fun mood. To put it plainly, I often despise madrigals. I’ve been forced to sing them too many times, and the resulting performances were not incredibly pleasant. The reason I mention this is because it speaks to Cooper’s interpretation of the pieces. I really, really liked what he did. I was aware of small nuances common in madrigals, and still thoroughly enjoyed the pieces despite my history with the form.

Up next was Harpsichord Concerto No. 5 in F minor, which really showcased Cooper’s skill-set. I had never heard a harpsichord live before, and the performance opened my eyes to the beauty of this, the modern piano’s ancestor. It’s no wonder that Cooper is globally recognized; his command of the instrument, as well as the Ensemble, is nothing short ofIMG_0496 impressive. The harpsichord itself is an incredible thing of antiquity. Reminiscent of crashing cymbals, at certain volumes the harpsichord seems to be more percussive than melodic, which is just as well.

Last but most certainly not least, Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, Op. 8, followed a brief intermission. Here is where forgetting your general music education comes in – this is not the Vivaldi you knew in third grade. This is Vivaldi portrayed by first violinist Marjorie Bagley, violinist Kristi Helberg, violinist Daniel Khalikov, cellist Alistair MacRae, violist Irena McGuffee, double bassist Peter Weitzner, and of course, harpsichordist Kenneth Cooper. Everyone has heard Vivaldi’s famous pieces at some point in their lives, but you have never truly heard it until you’ve seen it in the Berkshire Bach Ensemble’s capable hands; these musicians from around the world bring a unique sound to the somewhat overplayed classics.

The greatest benefit of attending performances such as these is the chance to witness the performers’ passion. Cooper’s style of conducting while playing is intriguing. He makes it seem that one is just as important as the other, leaving room for emphasis on either when needed. Rising slightly from his bench as he cues an entrance or cuts off a phrase, his unique multitasking really adds to the show. Every instrumentalist feels their music to a certain point, but the members of the Berkshire Bach Ensemble transcend feeling to become. Any onlooker could tell. Swaying with the cadence of their harmonies and melodies, each musician captures the audience in a way only a truly skilled musician can. The intimacy of Weisberg Hall played a large part in connecting the audience to the stage.

I highly recommend that you find out where the Ensemble will be next, because if anything made missing Pride parade worth it, it was them. The Catskill Mountain Foundation is constantly bringing world class performances to the Catskills and right under our noses. Keep an eye on the Foundation; if just a few more people catch on to the caliber of these events, they’ll be selling out quick.

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Poetry and Polka-dots: A Review

VerleeMM3_credit A Pavhk 2014

Photo credit: A. Pavhk

When you read enough of one writer’s work, you will probably notice a recurring theme. Robert Frost had ice, glass, and winter, where Meggie Royer has whale bones and flowers. My latest discovery was that Jeanann Verlee has a startlingly different edge, unique in that it appears in every single one of her poems: she’s got grit, and a whole lot of it. Her book of poetry, “Said The Manic To The Muse,” has been called a “searing exploration,” an elegy, an ode, and all of these accusations are true.

In some cases, the first step in determining whether a book is worth the read is who has published it. The fact that this was Verlee’s second collection to be published by Write Bloody was more than enough to guarantee I’d be blown away. This is a company that has published the work of Khary Jackson, Sierra DeMulder, Taylor Mali, Andrea Gibson, Sarah Kay – need I say more? I consider these poets to be the greats of our time, and Verlee fits in perfectly. Dirty in the way of sharing things we’re often told not to share, her poetry is revealing as well as innovative. I cannot pick a favorite poem, but if I had to, Wherein the Author Provides Footnotes and Bibliographic Citation for the First Stanza Drafted after a Significant and Dangerous Depression Incurred upon Being Referenced as a “Hack” Both by Individuals Unknown to the Author and by Individuals Whom the Author Had Previously Considered Friends(*)(†)(‡)(𝕊) would probably be very near my first pick. The title itself takes up a third of the page, while the body of the poem is ten simple lines riddled with superscripts, followed by four pages of footnotes, complete with its very own bibliography. Aside from being a huge fan of “† Absurdist elongated title style,” I am a huge fan of such creativity. Whoever called Verlee a “hack” should be feeling quite ashamed for inspiring that amount of detail.51qAjiVWnvL__SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

The most impressive element here is Verlee’s ability to bare all, every discomfort, regret, and delusion, and bare it skillfully. I  have only one problem with her poetry: page 74, line 10 of The Voices, “Maggie thinks you’re a coward.” This is completely untrue. I believe that Jeanann Verlee is one of the bravest, toughest women I’ve ever seen.

Jeanann Verlee will be a featured poet in the Poetry at 1600 Feet series on July 19th! Workshop from 5:30PM to 6:30PM, Performance and Open mic starting at 7PM. Find us on Facebook to stay updated; this is an event you’ll regret missing.

Poet, Performer, Former Punk Rocker – In Other Words, Jeanann Verlee

John Murillo describes Jeanann Verlee as “the real deal,” and accurately so. Her poetry is raw, evocative, unrelenting, and her performances are incredible. On that note, mark your calendars people – cancel your meetings, call off your dinners – this summer, “the real deal” is coming to Hunter. On July 19th at Karen’s Country Kitchen, Verlee will be hosting a workshop (5:30PM-6:30PM), followed by a performance and open mic (starting at 7PM); the very first event in the Poetry at 1600 Feet series.

Verlee_credit Jonathan Saunders 2008What got you into poetry, specifically spoken word?

I started writing poems as a little girl. I committed to the genre in high school creative writing classes and by college was submitting to journals, gained a few early publication credits, and started focusing more on the study. Around that same time, I was invited to participate in the then-budding game of poetry slam, but I rejected the idea of competing with my art. It was fully a decade before I even attended a poetry slam to watch—only after I moved to New York City. Eventually, I started reading in open mics and, even later, under the persistent encouragement of Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz, I signed up for my first slam. After that, I spent many years competing in slams throughout NYC and nationally. It is a fun game and I gained a lot from my participation. The game kept me writing, challenged my perspective, encouraged me to take risks, and helped hone my performance skills. For me (as one who does not perform improvisationally—a skill I hugely admire), the writing of the poem comes first. I focus there long before I start the work of practicing performance. In my purview, “spoken word” encompasses a huge history rooted in aboriginal storytelling. From the griots of West Africa to Native American orators and beyond, the history of spoken word is immense and includes myriad genres. For me, for now, I write poems and sometimes perform them live. And I’m immeasurably lucky to be able to do so.

Do you have a favorite poem? What about a favorite song?

Favorite poem…yikes. Narrowing to a single poem seems impossible—there are so many! Let me offer a sampling (tomorrow may look different): “Shooter” by Jan Beatty, “Brown Boy Dichotomy” by Ian Khadan, “Gravity” by Angel Nafis, “Flowers for Etheridge” by John Murillo, “Camouflage” by Shira Erlichman, “Black Girl Interrupt-ed (a remix)” by Lynne Procope, and “Song” by Brigit Pegeen Kelly. (This is a squirrely mix of new and established writers, friends and unknowns, print and audio poems—but my love for each is honest.)

Favorite song is somehow much easier: “When I Was a Fool” by Johnette Napolitano from Concrete Blonde’s “Group Therapy” album.

Ever since I started working toward a career in law enforcement I was afraid that I was giving up my creative side, but talking to artists like you has made me realize that you can always do what you love. How did you find the balance between pursuing your passions and doing what you have to in order to get by?

I grew up in a working class family. At times we were markedly poor, other times—we ‘got by.’ Never stable, though. Money, bills, debt, thrift, reuse, do-it-yourself, hand-me-downs—these have been part of my daily language my entire life. Financial worry has so informed my existence that it is part of my psyche, and as such, it is very very difficult for me to imagine (much less engage in) life without steady, full-time employment. I have a palpable fear of joblessness, of finding myself unable to pay rent or sustain groceries. I am continually rattled by looming debt, which I periodically manage to pay down only to invariably end up accruing more due to one crisis or another. All that is to say…I never thought I’d be able to BE a writer until after retirement.

Verlee_credit Alana Melanson 2010

I simply accepted that regular employment would prevent the pursuit of writing. So when—at 35—after years of engaging in writing communities throughout NYC in my spare time, I submitted to a book publication contest, and won (!?). I was gobsmacked. It blew every image I had of myself and how my years would be realized. I, too, believed my creative side would be merely “hobby” until retirement—or a miracle. But I was wrong. I realize now that all these years of journaling and working and study and reading and engaging IS “being a writer.” I know scarcely any writers (outside of trust-funded folks) who are not paying bills through other means. From baristas to book store clerks to teachers to IT administrators to car mechanics to bartenders…we work (sometimes unfulfilling) jobs to pay bills, and we squeeze every last drop of living out of our off hours to make art. I can’t say I found the balance, but that the balance found me.

Do you have any advice for young poets?

Read. Read more. Write. Take risks. Be willing to make mistakes. Revise. Hone. Work.

I know that you’re both writer and editor; do you have anything to say to other writers from an editor’s point of view?

Befriend punctuation. Befriend grammar. Learn their proper function so that when you break the rules, you are doing so intentionally. Editors can tell the difference. So can readers. When you bend the rules by choice, you appear much fancier. In fact, it is discovering such choices in other people’s work that can actually make me squeal, or dance, or yelp, “Yes!” But only when I recognize that the writer knows exactly what they are doing.

Can you recommend a few literary magazines?

Verlee_credit Marshall Goff 2014BDevil’s Lake, Gulf Coast, The Offing, Paper Darts, Adroit, PANK, Sugar House Review, BOAAT, Rattle, Winter Tangerine Review, Union Station Magazine, Muzzle Magazine, The Collagist, Birdfeast, Nailed Magazine, Thrush Poetry Journal, Vinyl Poetry…so many more.

(And yes, I’ve worked on two of these journals—transparency of bias!)

What sparked your love of polka dots?

Ha. I guess…I’m not entirely certain. I’ve always been drawn to weird, to an aesthetic of magical whimsy—particularly with regard to decoration and fashion. Over the years, I’ve paired incongruent patterns for a sense of intentional oddity (daisy print top with stars & stripes shorts, plaids alongside polka dots, combat boots with thrift store evening gowns). I also keep bizarre pieces of art in my home. I used to have a quiet adoration for “rockabilly” though never really committed fully to the style myself. (I still can’t help but coo over the glam of a pin up girl in polka dots.) This may be where I first fell for them. They’re playful, coy, even silly. They celebrate something I can’t quite articulate—a patterned chaos, perhaps. As someone who lives with bipolar, one whose life experience and poetic body details myriad darknesses and griefs, I have long found solace and celebration in being eclectic and whimsical in fashion—in whatever ways I can afford. Trust I would dress and decorate much more “weird” if finances weren’t part of the equation.

Jeanann Verlee is one of three featured poets in the Poetry at 1600 Feet series. Reserve a spot in her workshop and stick around for her performance on July 19th! Call us or email uhaldem@catskillmtn.org for more info. CMF Ticket line: 518-263-2063 (photo credits: Jonathan Saunders, Alana Melanson)